Fortunately I don’t have to write much for this particular post, since I’m tired 🙂
When talking about genetics we covered a bunch of interesting ideas and principles: lethal genes, timebombs, diversity, competition, stable strategies, and the so-called “selfish gene“. We’ve just spent some time discussing the interesting principles of memes, and surprise (surprise!) all of the above ideas/principles that we covered in genetics apply as well (sometimes with a bit of tweaking) to memetics.
Beyond pointing that out, there isn’t a lot else I wanted to say. Genes and memes have their differences, but as units of mutation and selection they have way more in common than a lot of people tend to realize.
It was originally only supposed to be a single post, and this one makes three. Now I know why Dawkins originally wrote it as a book! This should (hopefully) be my last post on the selfish gene for now; next week we’ll move on to other stuff.
Given my previous points, one might realistically wonder why people aren’t simply altruistic all the time. If altruism leads to better overall genetic survival, why are people (sometimes) selfish?
Like a lot of things, the actual result is a bit of a balancing act. While human beings share a huge portion of genetic material simply be being human, nobody’s genes are exactly the same. As such, there is still some competition between different human genomes for survival.
Especially in developed society, where the human population is large and stable, and the loss of an individual is unlikely to risk the loss of a species, people are more selfish because they can afford to be. Being selfish in that environment increases the probability that your specific genes will survive, but does not realistically decrease the probability that human genes in general will survive.
The genes themselves are not doing these probability calculations of course; it is simply the case that those genes whose expressed behaviour most closely matched the actual probabilities involved were the most likely to survive. It’s all one marvellous self-balancing system of feedback.
My previous post on The Selfish Gene didn’t quite cram in all of the ideas I wanted to touch on. Or, more precisely, I didn’t articulate some of them very well (if at all). So let’s revisit them a bit more explicitly before moving on.
A common complaint against “survival of the fittest” is that on the surface it seems incompatible with altruistic behaviour. If the fittest really do survive, why do people ever make sacrifices for the greater good? Don’t those sacrifices make them less likely to survive, thus weeding out such behaviour over time? Should we not, if “survival of the fittest” were true, be seeing nearly perfectly selfish people, each aiming for their own survival at the expense of everyone else?
This is the primary complaint that Dawkins was answering in his book, and the title (though otherwise a bit misleading) does in some sense encapsulate his answer to those question. The key point to remember is that the basic unit of survival, the thing on which “survival of the fittest” actually operates, is not the individual animal. The things that are surviving according to their fitness are, in fact, our genes.
Since human beings share a substantial portion of genetic code simply by belonging to the same species, this view makes altruism much more coherent; we may sacrifice a bit of our own personal good, but if the increase in general good means many more people survive to reproduce, this is good for our genes overall (thus why Dawkins calls them “selfish”).
This also explains why we tend to be more altruistic towards close family: they share a larger percentage of our genes than some other random person.
Yes, the title of this post is a direct reference to the book of the same title by Richard Dawkins. Whatever you may think of Dawkins himself, his science has ended up being extremely influential.
The title is, by the author’s own admission, rather misleading. The idea is not to think of genes as agents with purpose or moral capacity (they’re just chemical strings after all). Instead, consider the following scenario:
A women and her husband stand before the queen. The women is pregnant, just starting to show. The man is putting on a brave face, as his wife has just killed a man. The punishment is death.
The man steps forward, shaking. “My queen”, he says, “I confess”. His wife lets out a whimper. “I am guilty of this crime, not she”. He pauses as the weight of what he has done sinks in, then continues. “I accept the consequences of my crime”.
It is a natural and obvious connection to draw that, given survival of the fittest and basic genetics, the genes that survive will be ones that make their respective animals survive. But on this understanding, the above scenario makes no sense. Why would the man confess to a crime he did not commit, when it leads to his almost certain death? Does not survival of the fittest imply that such behaviour be weeded out over time? We could argue that this altruistic behaviour is not representative and in fact will be weeded out, but such behaviour has been recorded again and again throughout history.
Instead, we must notice that while the man will certainly die, his genes will not. In fact, half his genes are at that moment present in his unborn child, who has a full and long life ahead if the man makes this sacrifice. Humanity tends to see this sacrifice as noble and good in some sense, but it is really much simpler than that. The man is not doing what is best for himself; he is doing what is best for his genes.